A very cold spring: how I nearly lost next year’s Leek crop

I do rather like leeks. That’s why I grow lots of them; they’re the vegetable I most remember growing on our family allotment on Tyneside, the crop that regularly won Dad prizes in the Allotment Federation’s annual competition – tenderly nurtured by collective family effort, but credited to the (male) allotment holder! They also make scrumptious leek puddings and are essential ingredients in bacon broth. I also appreciate the outdoor larder a well-stocked bed of flagged leeks represents in winter.

winter leeks

I’m beginning to plant out the leek seedlings I germinated during late winter and early spring, but have had to review my insistence on germinating leek seed so early. I made elaborate arrangements for germination in early January using hot water bottles and bubble wrap; I then planted the resulting seedlings in a nursery bed in early February, just as the coldest of winter weather swept across the South Downs. The poor seedlings just sat there and sulked – at least they didn’t die on me, but they certainly didn’t prosper. I had assumed they were as hardy as the fully-grown ones we were harvesting, and made the mistake of leaving them uncovered and unprotected until March, when I eventually covered them with old windows, something I’ve never had to do during the last 15 years of growing. They perked up a bit, but only just. I sowed a 2nd lot of seeds in March and popped them into the seed bed, undercover, alongside the earlier ones, at the beginning of April. The cold had clearly set the early seedlings back and they were actually smaller than the March germinated seeds; as the weather warmed, the seedlings grew faster, and they all eventually caught up by May.

early leek seedlings-February '13

One thing I did learn about germinating Leek seed so early and subjecting them to cold at the wrong time in their growth cycle, is that it can confuse the plants into thinking they’re going through winter, which makes them produce flower spikes during their 1st summer or early autumn (they are biennial and normally flower during their 2nd summer). That happened to one variety of Leek I sowed early a couple of years ago, during the 1st of our recent cold winters. I couldn’t transplant the seedlings until mid July and they almost immediately started producing flower spikes during August, something I had attributed to the delay in planting out and the large size of the seedlings. I had sown Carentan, Musselborough, Pandora and Bleu De Solaise, but only the Carentan went to seed that summer, possibly indicating their susceptibility to bolt in unfavourable conditions.

It’s valuable understanding the germination and growth patterns for the crops you want to grow so you can work with them to get good crops as early and late in the year as is practical. But it’s also important to know when messing with sowing and planting dates can confuse the plant’s own seasonal growing cycle – this could be linked to temperature or day length sensitivity.  Work with the patterns, not against them. There was no advantage in rushing to sow early and I nearly lost those early seedlings during our intensely cold spring. The other lesson is the danger of repeating the same approaches to sowing and planting crops that worked in the past during different and milder winters and springs – that was my folly. I won’t even think to sow my leeks until March next year, then I’ll keep them covered until spring ‘properly’ arrives.

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